Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Tandy Assembly 2018—Wednesday, November 28th, 2018

I adjusted my Thanksgiving travel this year to take in Tandy Assembly in Springfield, Ohio. Tandy Assembly was started last year to mark the 40th anniversary of the introduction of the first complete computer, the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I. Of course, it wasn’t called the Model I at the time. It was the “TRS-80 Micro Computer System”. It came with everything you needed to start using a computer. It even came with its own monitor!

The monitor was a clumsily-converted black-and-white television, but it still1 provided a relatively clear display compared to most of its competitors, which used RF modulators to convert the video output to radio signals for use in a television set.

This was well-known at the time, but it is more clear now just how clumsy the conversion was, due to the deterioration of the original monitors. The big “Radio Shack TRS-80 Video Display” badge on the right side of the monitor below the red power button was loose on one of the demonstration tables. Behind it are two empty round holes, where the VHF and, probably, volume knobs were.

And of course, “using a computer” meant programming it in BASIC, as the first computer, being both first and new, had no commercial software available for it.

The show was fascinating. I haven’t seen a working Model I since I sold mine for parts after a house fire in 1987.2 There were several on display here, running ancient games such as Donut Dilemma, Weerd, and Outhouse. It remains amazing just what programmers did back then in 384 by 192 pixels—managed through 128 by 48 blocks. Arthur A. Gleckler talked about writing Weerd in assembly language for the Model I and managing to get taken on by Big Five Software just before the bottom dropped out of the Model I games market.

Hit that link and you can play Weerd in a Javascript emulator.

Innovation in a state of fear: the unintended? consequences of political correctness—Wednesday, October 10th, 2018
King Ludd

There is always a culture clash between those who understand how productive industry actually works and those who gape at it like savages, believing it to be some kind of Heap Big White Man Magic. And where there is Magic, there are Sorcerors and Demons; for most people, particularly those of the primitive mindset, the large cloud of Unknowns is filled in by their imaginations with malice, conspiracy, and deviltry.7

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how the software built into self-driving cars is racist. But the problems we’re facing are not that the software is racist, nor that the programmers are racist. Most, if not all, of these problems would be solved long before the technology were placed in a car if it weren’t for two potentially huge problems in software development today. Self-driving cars are at the forefront of both: a top-down desire to computerize and control on the part of the left, and a growing fear among innovators of research and technologies that might draw the attention of social media mobs.

Software that can discern which shapes and colors in its sensors are persons and which are not is a problem with myriad applications. Under normal circumstances, that problem would be solved for less dangerous applications long before the technology were used in vehicles. Unfortunately, there is a growing fear in the technology industry of making gadgets that accidentally offend, resulting in a social media crusade against either the company or the individual programmers that made the gadget or software.1

Both of these are part of a a bigger problem, which is that progressives for the most part despise progress. The only progress they support is toward more government power, which is usually a regression to barbarism, not progress toward civilization.

Anything that improves the human condition—abundant food, cheap energy, easy travel, water management—is an evil that must be stopped. Even to the point of regretting the invention of fire. A big example from recent memory is California’s water shortage after a relatively short drought. In sane times, California would never have had a crisis just because of normal cyclic changes in rainfall. They would have built the dams they needed, decades ago, to withstand an easily foreseen temporary reduction in rainfall.

Security questions will always be insecure—Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
You are talking to a stalker

Would a real person on the other end accept this answer or escalate?

The purpose of insecurity questions and answers is to bypass not knowing the password. The more they’re treated like passwords, the more useless they become for that purpose.

Insecurity questions are those questions you’re forced to answer when you create an account just in case you forget your password. The answers are about some aspect of your life. Your mother’s maiden name. Your first date. Your most inspirational teacher. Your favorite actor.1 Public information that is hopefully obscure enough to identify you in the unlikely event that you forget your password, but at the same while keeping the mass of potential hijackers out.

Insecurity questions are sometimes called security questions, secret questions, out-of-wallet questions2, or knowledge-based authentication. These questions by their nature require awkward security tradeoffs. Sometimes I think the reason password recovery questions are referred to with misleading names like “security questions” and “secret questions” is to gloss over the fact that they are horribly insecure, not at all secret, and do little to ensure authentication. The questions aren’t secret. They’re shown to anyone attempting to bypass not knowing the password. The answers aren’t secret. That’s the whole point, that they are information about a person that the person won’t, like their password, forget.

Calling them security questions obscures the fact that they specifically reduce security. That’s their entire purpose: to provide alternative access to a protected service, in a way that doesn’t require knowing the account owner’s access credentials. The more avenues we provide for accessing a protected service without knowing or having the pass information, the easier it is for the hijacker. Two different access paths will always be less secure then one path, even if both paths are secure—and insecurity questions are by design not secure. That’s their whole point, that you’ve lost access to the secure path.3

CDC warns gun owners to beware of the leopard—Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018
Public Data: Beware of Leopard

Back in February I wrote about why people don’t trust the CDC to perform research on firearms ownership. Since then, it’s become even more blatant. It turns out that the CDC ran surveys back in the nineties to disprove Gary Kleck’s research that gun ownership was in fact very effective.

Instead, the CDC’s data showed that Kleck was right. So the CDC simply never reported on that research and it was never given front-page headlines—even now that the data has been discovered.

This makes sense, of course. The CDC is focused around disease control. Treating firearms ownership as a disease by its nature will create bad data and bad research policies. If you were doing research on cancer, and it turns out cancer causes people to live longer, then obviously you’re going to distrust your research. In fact, you’ll probably bury it, because there is clearly something wrong with your study. The problem is that this is not science, let alone good science.

Firearms ownership is not a disease, and the more research that’s done on it, the more we learn that it’s not just a fun sport, it’s also healthy and a good idea. An organization centered around disease control will never have the right perspective to research something that isn’t a disease.

I could be wrong. The CDC can prove that they can be trusted to perform research outside of disease control by publicizing the data that both supports their preconceptions and that disproves it. They can convince congress to make it a law that all government-funded data must be made public. Until they can do that, I’m not even sure they can be trusted to perform research on diseases. What happens when some new disease violates their preconceptions? Will they let people die from that disease rather than report their results?

If so, then the money we use to fund their research is better spent elsewhere. The fact is, I don’t even trust this data. The CDC’s record is so bad on firearms research that it’s hard to trust anything that comes out of them, even when it accords with independent research. In Should the government (and the CDC) fund research into gun violence?, I wrote that

…what the CDC researchers appeared to be doing was crunching the numbers in their data in different ways until they found a result that pleased them. This is the polar opposite of science.

Government Funding Disorder—Wednesday, April 11th, 2018
Shocked at government funding

The latest evidence that government dominance of research funding holds back useful progress is a complaint in a March 17, 2018, Science News article on postpartum depression.

Imagine that you are a grant-writer at a business, a college, a foundation, or some other institution that performs research, and you have the opportunity to recommend a funding request. Your choices are internet gaming disorder and postpartum depression. One has the potential to show how the Internet should be further regulated to keep people from harming themselves with Internet addiction; the other has the potential to help millions of women who suffer from a serious and sometimes deadly illness. Which do you recommend?

All other things being equal, it will probably depend on what your interests and your institution’s interests are. If they lie toward gaming or Internet issues, you may go with the first. If they lie toward maternity issues or medical sales, and you want to profit from your results, you might go with the second.

But what if all things aren’t equal? What if the majority of funds come from government bureaucracies? Then you have the real world, in which “more than four times as many [human brain imaging studies] have been conducted on a problem called ‘internet gaming disorder’” than on postpartum depression. And that compares, on one side, only five years of research, and on the other, decades.

This is a result that only makes sense in a world where government funding swamps private funding. It means government’s needs—justification for more laws—take precedence over the majority of people’s needs. It puts the desires of politicians—more opportunities to milk donations from rich industries—over the needs of everyone else.

In a sane world, we’d be complaining about the mad rush to profit off of women’s misery, not about ignoring that potential profit. The sheer numbers of potential customers for a solution to postpartum depression would turn our current disparity upside down and spike it.

Instead of pouring money and time into the latest fleeting infatuations of politicians and government bureaucracies, we’d be solving a problem that potentially affects half the population. That really sounds like government funding holding progress back.

The Radio Shack Postal Service—Wednesday, April 4th, 2018
80-Micro November 1981 cover

In August, 1981, IBM introduced the IBM Personal Computer, and begin shipping it in October. At the time, the market was dominated by Tandy (Radio Shack), Apple, and Commodore. I’ve been rebrowsing 80 microcomputing, and in the November 1981 issue Betty Thayer covered the introduction and Tandy’s reaction to it.

Thus far Tandy’s reaction to their new competition has been blase. “I don’t think we’re going to lose any business because of it,” says Jon Shirley, vice president of the Fort Worth, TX, firm’s computer division.

According to Thayer, “market analysts estimate [Tandy holds] about 25 percent of the personal computer market, with Apple of Cupertino, CA, garnering about 22 percent and Norristown, PA-based Commodore 20 percent.”

What’s amazing is not just how clueless Tandy leadership was, but also that experts in general were all over the map. The article itself tends to focus on the small business market, rather than the personal computer market.

These new machines “will not have an immediate effect,” says market analyst Al Hirsh of Datapro Research Corp., Delran, NJ. Hirsh feels that the new computers will have the swiftest impact on Tandy’s major accounts because their competitors have so many business contacts.

Other marketing people think the new computers—particularly the IBM personal computer—will affect Apple computer’s sales more than Tandy’s. “The IBM personal computer is aimed smack at Apple, “because its price and capabilities are similar,” says Gerald Hallaren of the Yankee Group, a Cambridge, MA, market consulting firm.

The very title of the article shows off the confusion: Xerox, IBM storm market, pull wraps off their micros.

Hirsch predicted of the IBM offering that “One million of them will be sold by 1985”. In fact, they hit a million sometime in 1982, and sold another million in 1983, another two million in 1984. By 1985 they were selling five million per year.

Radio Shack had their own sales outlets; the other computers of the time, including IBM, sold through third-party outlets such as Sears and ComputerLand.

How will Tandy’s distribution match up? With 2,000 dealers, 168 computer centers and 4,800 retail stores, they’ve pretty much got the field covered. They also have some direct accounts sales people, though this is certainly not their strongest point. Shirley of Tandy thinks their retail units are the key to escaping the influx of IBM and Xerox. “They’re selling them in stores where they sell Apples and PETs,” he says, theorizing those two producers will feel the brunt of the competition.

Should the government (and the CDC) fund research into gun violence?—Wednesday, February 14th, 2018
Propaganda research

I am becoming more and more convinced that government funding retards the advancement of science, not just by denying funding to lines of research that the bureaucrats decide can’t possibly go anywhere but also by focusing more on a bureaucratic consensus of what results are allowable than on a search for the truth wherever it leads. Science News reminded me recently of a blatant example of that from the nineties.

In For trauma surgeon, gun violence is personal in the November 11, 2017 Science News, Aimee Cunningham writes:

One roadblock is Congress, which has severely limited federal funding to study gun violence. “Why wouldn’t we want to know what the truth is and what the data show?” [Joseph Sakran] asks… “Everyone should want that.”

The real question is, should the government fund any research, or do political and bureaucratic considerations hold advancement back when the government gets involved?

The truth is, Congress has not limited federal funding to study gun violence. What Congress did was ban the Centers for Disease Control from using its funds to advocate or promote gun control. This is general U.S. policy, that government bureaucrats are not supposed to use taxes for political lobbying.1 The CDC remains free to fund whatever research they want, and as long as they stick to real scientific research, there will be no political will to cut their funding as happened in 1996.

But more importantly, what Science News is eliding is that there was a good reason for cutting the CDC’s funding back in 1996. People who want the truth and want to know what the data show do not want the CDC sucking funds away from real research into violence. Before the Congressional ban on politically-motivated spending, the CDC’s “research” into self-defense was never science. The very act of treating self-defense as a disease guaranteed that their research would be flawed. The CDC’s funding went to people who were known to promote the bureaucrats’ line, and who were known to interpret data far beyond what the data said. They then refused to make their data available to other scientists despite laws requiring publicly funded data to be made public. And as far as that goes, disclosure laws shouldn’t have mattered. The scientific method requires public data.

Who wants a driverless car?—Wednesday, April 19th, 2017
Maximum Overdrive semi

Is this what self-driving cars mean?

There are a lot of people in the car-talk industry wondering what will happen when driverless cars are perfected. A lot of people looking back fondly on their own car ownership, and wondering why kids today don’t care so much about owning a car.

Shelia Dunn on the NMA blog asked, “do you want a driverless car?

I’m not a control freak by any means but I bristle when I read that the driverless car is inevitable—a foregone conclusion. Is it just me or does anyone else feel like that the driverless car is being crammed down our throats at a break-neck pace by over-zealous techies who think that the driverless car is really cool, so we must all want one too?

I agree with Dunn that the current push for driverless cars is an artificial one. It may actually delay their acceptance, especially if the driverless cars pushed on us aren’t as safe as they need to be. I especially think that most people probably don’t want their own car to be driverless.

But think about the steps toward the driverless car. Think about all of your friends who hate parallel parking. Think about all the parallel parking spaces you’ve seen that were big enough for your car, but too small to ease into. A driverless car that works would be able to park in those spaces, spaces you would never be able to park yourself.

And what about taxi service? Would you prefer your taxi to be driven by a human or by a reliable computer? If you had the choice in some future city, which would you choose? Personally, I’d prefer to drive my own car, but I’d definitely prefer my taxi to be automatic.

Especially if it’s cheaper. How much of a taxi driver’s cost goes to maintaining the car, and how much to the driver and the driver’s managers? Only the maintenance cost remains with driverless cars. All of the costs that come with hiring and maintaining drivers disappear.

How much of the inconvenience of taking a taxi goes to finding one when you need one, with a driver who is reliable enough to get you where you need to go on time?

Driverless cars also solve several other parking issues. Imagine parking your car in the 15-minute loading zone right out front of where you need to be… and it’s programmed to leave and find a better parking space on its own, and return when you need it.

Or instead of leaving your car in the airport parking lot, you drive to the airport, get out in front of the terminal, and your car drives itself home, parks itself in your garage, and comes to pick you up a week or two later, knowing from your phone that you just landed and will be out front in about fifteen minutes?

Older posts.